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Assessing U.S.-Venezuela Relations After Very Close Election Favors Maduro

April 15, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Nicolás Maduro will be Venezuela's new president following Hugo Chavez's death in March. Ray Suarez talks to Cynthia Arnson of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research about Venezuela's election system, economy and how the United States is responding.
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RAY SUAREZ: For more on the election and what it means for Venezuela and the United States, I’m joined by Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin America Program at the Wilson Center, and Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Cindy Arnson, let’s start with you.

Henrique Capriles has formally requested the cancellation of the official event to certify the results. Given the state of play in Venezuela, is that result as far as we know it now likely to hold up?

CYNTHIA ARNSON, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars: I think the result is likely to hold up, but the real question is under what process and whether there will be a recount that will be accepted by the opposition as legitimate.

One of the difficulties in this is that the institutions of the government have been so stacked over the years by Chavista supporters that their independence I think is really called into question, certainly by the opposition, as well as a lot of people in the international community.

The very electoral council that ratified the vote last night is four out of five members, you know, who are considered Chavistas. Whether they’re hard-line Chavistas or Chavista-lite, they are still people who are close to the PSUV.

There’s one opposition person. So, the real question is how do you affirm the legitimacy in the eyes of the Venezuelan people of this very narrow victory, quite surprising given the polls?

RAY SUAREZ: Mark Weisbrot, the opposition candidate has requested a full recount. Given what it says in Venezuelan electoral law, is he likely to get? Is it hard to get?

MARK WEISBROT, Center for Economic and Policy Research: Well, let me give you some context here I think for your listeners and viewers.

I think the only reason we’re having a discussion about the legitimacy of the Venezuelan election or having all this news and all the negative news really that you hear about Venezuela almost every day — it’s about 90 percent negative — is — there are two reasons.

One is that this is probably the most important target for regime change from the United States government. And, two, it has 500 billion barrels of oil approximately. And those two things are reeled. And I think that’s why we’re having this.

Let’s face it. In 2006, there was an election in Mexico where Calderon won by 0.6 percent, about a third of the margin that Maduro had. And what did the U.S. government do? They congratulated him before there was any kind of even announcement or official announcement that he won. And then they organized an international campaign to legitimate his election.

And they supported them when they not only refused a recount, but refused to even divulge …

RAY SUAREZ: Absent American congratulations or not, what does Venezuelan law say about whether or not Capriles can get a recount? Is he likely to get one?

MARK WEISBROT: Oh, he doesn’t have any entitlement to a recount.

And you already have — the Venezuelan system is very secure. That’s why Jimmy Carter called it the best in the — electoral process in the world. They already audited 54 percent of the votes. Statistically, they do that right there. They take — you know, there’s two copies of every vote. You push a touch-screen. You get a receipt. You get to look at it. You put it in a ballot box.

So, unlike our system, where we don’t really know who won when it’s a close election, they know. They have 50 — I mean, they take a random selection of 54 percent for an audit. And they look at the machine and they make sure it counts up with the ballot and they do it in front of the opposition witnesses. And that’s already been done.

That’s done at the election. You know, the difference between 100 percent and a 54 percent random sample in this situation is statistically not really that much. It’s almost trivial.

RAY SUAREZ: Cynthia Arnson, if that margin does hold up, as both of you suggest it’s likely to do, is Maduro a weakened president because of the closeness of the election? The president of the national assembly, one of his rivals, said the results oblige us to make profound self-criticism.

It’s a divided country, huh?

CYNTHIA ARNSON: It’s a very divided country.

And I think that as a result of the narrow margin, Nicolas Maduro has nowhere the mandate that he had been hoping for. Last October, President Chavez won that election with close to 11 percent of the popular vote. And all of the polls going into these last days, you know, before the election show that Maduro continued to enjoy a reduced, but still a six or seven percent lead.

And to have that down to the point that the opposition is calling for a recount because they don’t trust, you know, the final count shows that the country is far more divided and there were far more defections from the governing party, from the PSUV, than anyone had anticipated, including the pollsters that over time have shown themselves to be the most credible.

So he goes into this with a very weakened mandate, with difficulty in keeping together the Chavista coalition, in resolving the deep problems of the economy in light of a devaluation, in resolving the atrocious situation of crime and violence in the country. How he will keep those various factions of the party together and at the same time tackle these very deep-seated problems is really a big question.

And I think it leaves open the possibility for a great deal more instability.

RAY SUAREZ: It sounds like it’s going to be difficult to run Venezuela, whoever takes the oath of president, given 30-plus percent inflation, high crime. Those facts are …

MARK WEISBROT: It was 20 percent last year. And it’s picked up a little in the last few months, but — or significantly in the last few months.

And I think that was part of the problem for Maduro. No, I think there are serious challenges ahead. But we don’t want to exaggerate them too much. For 14 years, the business press has been saying that the Venezuelan economy is going to collapse. And it never did. And it won’t either. They always say it’s unsustainable.

I mean, unsustainable is what we had in 2006 here, when you have an $8 trillion dollar housing bubble. And anybody who was looking at it, which unfortunately didn’t include the majority of the economics profession, knows that when it collapses, it’s going to collapse and you’re going to have a terrible recession.

They don’t have those kinds of imbalances. What they have is a problem of stabilizing the exchange rate. They had growth. They have had growth now for almost three years. For two-and-a-half of those years, right up to the last quarter of last year right up to the election, they were growing quite rapidly, accelerating, 5.6 percent last year.

And inflation was falling during all that time. It’s just picked up in the last few months. So, it is possible for them to resolve those problems. And the collapse that all the people who don’t like Venezuela are waiting for is really very unlikely to happen.

RAY SUAREZ: Let me get a quick back-and-forth from you both before we close on what’s at stake for the Venezuelans and the Americans in the U.S.-Venezuela relationship.

Cindy?

CYNTHIA ARNSON: Well, the United States continues to be Venezuela’s largest export market.

And that will probably continue. It’s not been very successful in diversifying its purchasers of Venezuelan oil. It’s a very heavy sulfur-laden kind of crude. And it’s very difficult to ship it for, you know — at great distances.

I think the biggest problem in the relationship is going to be the continuing rhetorical attacks on the U.S. government as having caused the cancer of Hugo Chavez and plotting to assassinate the opposition candidate, Capriles, to blame the government. I mean, the constant barrage of attacks on the United States would suggest anything but — suggests that there will be a very difficult moment ahead.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Mark, quickly.

MARK WEISBROT: Yes.

Well, The New York Times reported today that Maduro reached out through Bill Richardson to the U.S. government to try to improve relations. And I think you saw the answer today. The statement from the White House was much worse than the one from the State Department that you played. They actually said, we believe it’s necessary for you to have 100 percent audit of your vote.

That is a very, very rude, nasty thing to say. It’s basically hate speech, tell another government, one that you supported a military coup against, and I won’t even talk about our own elections here, and to tell them how their elections should be run and to take openly the side of the opposition.

And it’s very disturbing, because if they just wanted that, they wouldn’t say it publicly. They did it knowing that it would cause trouble. And that’s what I’m really worried about right now.

RAY SUAREZ: Mark Weisbrot, Cynthia Arnson, thank you both.

MARK WEISBROT: Thank you.